As carpenters sort through wood at the lumberyard looking for the truest boards, New Orleans artist Darrin Butler is often right among them, inspecting birch plywood to find sheets with just the right grain pattern.
The wood he selects becomes both canvas and medium in his unique and self-taught painting technique. Although he took a few art classes as a young student, Butler’s approach today owes much more to his later work experience painting cars at a local auto dealership.
Using rags and towels rather than brushes, Butler applies to the wood a variety of stains, which he makes himself using auto paint and watercolors.
“You have to be able to combine certain things in your art, and for me that mix has been automobile skills, my artistic vision and dyslexia,” Butler says.
Butler realized he was dyslexic long after his school days were over, but he believes that coping with the condition forced him to be more creative throughout his life. He now credits it as an inspiration rather than a disability.
Butler’s style evolved after years of building decorative coffee tables with similar stain treatments as a hobby. Friends bought them and encouraged him to do more. He discovered the staining technique could be applied to paintings, and at age 35 he quit his car-painting job to devote himself to his art. He now tours art markets and festivals around the country and has earned commissions for festival posters and other projects along the way. He continually takes classes to learn new techniques, the latest being glassmaking so that he can embellish his handmade frames with glass beads and other features.
“What I’ve learned is that it’s not necessary to have formal training to be an artist,” he says. “If it’s in you, then that passion is going to find a way to come out.”
Butler will show his work at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Examples can also be seen online at colorsinwood.com.
Details are meticulously taped off to contain each color. As his compositions on nightlife and street scenes take shape, the grains of the wood become skin and hair, clothing, pavement and brass instruments. The finished piece is sprayed with clear polyurethane, lending a vivid sheen. It’s more than a painting on wood –– the wood grain itself becomes part of the texture and essence of the work.